Creating Change or pinkwashing Israeli apartheid: A Wider Bridge to Zionist propagandizing
by Pauline Park
I have attended 13 Creating Change conferences, but the 28th Creating Change in Chicago in January 2016, which I did not attend, will be remembered as perhaps the most controversial of them all (Matt Simonette and Gretchen Hammond, “Creating Change conference marked by controversies,” Windy City Times, 1.25.16). Creating Change is the largest annual general purpose conference of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists in the United States, the flagship event of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, which in 2016 changed its name to ‘National LGBTQ Task Force.’ If the 2016 Creating Change conference is remembered for anything, it will be remembered for the enormous controversies swirling around the invitation to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the reception held by A Wider Bridge on Jan. 22.
In a statement issued on Jan. 12, the Task Force announced that it had rescinded the invitation to ICE to facilitate a session at Creating Change 2016 after a wave of outrage from LGBT activists, especially people of color (statement from the National LGBTQ Task Force regarding Creating Change and ICE), executive director Rea Carey and deputy director Russell Roybal writing,
We know the decision to accept a proposal from ICE for a session at our Creating Change Conference was the wrong decision and that it has caused hurt and pain to communities and individuals we deeply care about. The decision also could have created a situation where the conference would not have felt like a safe space — a vitally important component of what makes the conference special — for undocumented immigrants, immigration activists and allies. Our commitment to immigrant rights and reform has never wavered, but we know community trust in our commitment has been damaged. We made a mistake and we deeply regret it and with our whole hearts apologize…
Sue Hyde, the director of Creating Change, issued a companion statement also apologizing for the decision and providing some background on the invitation to ICE. But if Task Force staff thought they had dodged a bullet, the outrage over ICE was just the prelude to the much bigger explosion over their invitation to A Wider Bridge.
On its website, A Wider Bridge describes itself as “the pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies,” but this is disingenuous at best if not downright misleading. AWB ‘pinkwashes’ the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine by creating an image of Israel as a gay paradise as a justification for the increasingly brutal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that Palestinians have endured since 1967. As Jimmy Pasch, the west regional organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, wrote on JVP’s website (“Don’t Pinkwash Apartheid: a Tochecha for the National LGBTQ Task Force“),
A Wider Bridge has a long history of ignoring and covering up Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians by touting Israel’s ‘gay-friendly’ reputation Upon learning of their participation at Creating Change, a diverse coalition of groups, with LGBTQ Palestinian organizations and leaders at the center, came together to oppose it. the coalition effectively made the case for how support of Israel’s military occupation, ethnic cleansing, racism, and colonialism [is[ incompatible with queer liberation and with fundamental human rights.’ Their organizing led to the initial cancellation of the event, but the backlash from institutional players was swift, leading to a barrage of misleading op-eds and the uncertain National LGBT Task Force, which runs the conference, reversing their decision.
The Task Force reversed its initial decision under enormous pressure from Zionists, both within and outside the LGBT community (“Group reverses decision to cancel reception with Israeli activists,” by Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade, 1.19.16). If anything, the Task Force’s pusillanimous indecision, far from pleasing everyone, just managed to alienate both Zionists and anti-Zionists as well as make the organization’s leadership look weak and indecisive.
Jimmy Johnson reported on Black Lives Matter Chicago’s statement for the Electronic Intifada, writing, “Shortly after that statement was released, the Chicago organization Brown People for Black Power cancelled its scheduled workshop at Creating Change, adding, “Kristian Davis Bailey, co-organizer of the ongoing Black for Palestine effort, told me by email that the Black Lives Matter Chicago statement builds on the joint struggle between segments of Black and Palestinian liberation movements” (“Activists pull out of Chicago LGBTQ conference over Israel pinkwashing,” Jimmy Johnson, Electronic Intifada, 1.22.16)
The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) issued a statement denouncing the Task Force (MASGD Statement on Pinkwashing Session at Creating Change 2016) on Jan. 22, on the morning of the AWB reception, declaring,
The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) rejects the Task Force’s latest attempt to address current tensions at Creating Change 2016 with regard to Zionism and the military occupation of Palestine by Israel. The past two weeks have included a series of attempts to manipulate, undermine, divide, and co-opt our communities, absent any intersectional analysis of the broader oppressive dynamics at play. MASGD stands with all LGBTQ activists who reject oppressive forces at Creating Change, whether they be ICE or Zionism… this ‘dialogue’ is a naked attempt to co-opt our criticisms of the structural violence of Zionism, by making this issue one of emotions and ‘hurt feelings’ rather than one of the politics of oppression, occupation, and racism. Such attempts at window-dressing can never address structures of power, and therefore cannot serve as a fix for the decisions made by the Task Force at Creating Change 2016 that support systems of oppression. The Task Force pays a lot of lip service to being concerned about social justice, and to understanding the ways in which oppressions intersect with one another; however, their actions this year have demonstrated a clear hypocrisy and betrayal of what queer liberation truly means… By siding with the forces of oppression and occupation, the Task Force is clearly on the wrong side of history.
For several years the Israeli government has attempted to use propaganda about the freedoms some LGBTQs in that country have as a cover for their increasingly brutal rule over Palestinians — a process known as ‘pink-washing.’ Because of the brutal racism of the country, mimicking South Africa under apartheid – one set of laws for Jews, another for Palestinians – most Palestinian LGBTQs don’t enjoy those freedoms. Instead, they endure the anti-Palestinian racism meted out on a daily basis to gay and non-gay alike. Israel’s racist rule features widespread imprisonment of Palestinians without charges or trials, systemic torture documented by numerous human rights organizations, and the intentional, extreme impoverishment of Palestinians thru the purposeful destruction of their economic activity in Gaza and the West Bank. Nothing more succinctly encapsulates the racist nature of the Israeli state than its infamous apartheid wall, facilitating the increasing theft of land from Palestinians even as they approach a majority of people in all the areas controlled by Israel. As progressives rightly criticize the racist wall that Donald Trump proposes to build on the U.S.-Mexico border, why can’t some of them see the profoundly racist nature of the wall that Israel has already built? By allowing a pro-Israel group space at its Creating Change conference, the National LGBTQ Task Force has turned its back on its ostensible mission to oppose racism in all of its forms. We will not keep silent as the LGBTQ movement is used as a cover for this anti-Palestinian racism.
In fact, none of the protestors objected to the presence of Jerusalem Open House; the criticisms were aimed solely at AWB; and none of the protestors blocked anyone from entering the ballroom; in fact, it was AWB people who tried to block the demonstrators from entering the room, directly contrary to Creating Change policy, which makes public events such as this AWB reception open to all Creating Change attendees. And the only ‘fire storm of hate’ was that being directed by Slepian and AWB against the peaceful protestors both during and after the event, with incendiary language mischaracterizing the demonstration as anti-Jewish (despite the participation of many Jews in it). Unfortunately, editorials such as that written by Kevin Naff seriously confused the issues at stake; in his editorial for the Washington Blade (Kevin Naff, “Creating Shame: Anti-Israel protest misguided, offensive,” Washington Blade, 1.25.16), Naff repeated the nonsense that Arthur Slepian was spreading about the chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” writing,
It’s not clear whether they understood the context of what they were chanting or if they were merely caught up in the moment. That genocidal chant is an overt call for the destruction of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
No one I know thinks that chant means anything of the sort; rather, it is an expression of the wish that Palestinians may one day live in freedom, liberated from the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine; far from ‘genocidal,’ it is actually the opposite: it is an expression of opposition to genocide. LGBT activist Faisal Alam wrote on his Facebook page on Jan. 23,
90% of what you’re reading about what happened or didn’t happen at Creating Change is being written by people who weren’t here. People who were here AND were involved with on-the-ground organizing are either traveling back right now or are exhausted as fuck from the insanity of the weekend! There is no way to describe what happened here and the impact that its had on those that were on the front lines. But here are three things that are facts. 1) there were 2 shabbat services held at Creating Change; neither were disrupted or canceled. 2) A Wider Bridge’s reception started without disruption. 3) The Hilton Chicago called the Chicago Police Department and the Hilton security shut down the reception. It seems that Windy city times is the only newspaper that has any semblance of ‘balance’ in its articles right now. Every other article has extensive quotes from A Wider Bridge and absolutely zero comments by organizers of the protest.
And as Jimmy Pasch of JVP put it,
The exclusion of A Wider Bridge from Creating Change is not about excluding Jews, as some have falsely charged, but rather to make clear that our struggles for liberation are all interconnected, and that support for occupation, colonialism, and discrimination has no place in our community.
A Wider Bridge is nothing more than a front for the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and AWB’s only role is to pinkwash the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine. The invocation of the opportunity for ‘dialogue’ from both the National LGBTQ Task Force and AWB is disingenuous at best, because LGBT Palestinians living under the occupation cannot participate in it even if they wanted to. By inviting A Wider Bridge to use Creating Change as a platform to pinkwash the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Task Force implicitly endorsed the occupation and the apartheid regime used to enforce it, thus betraying LGBT/queer Palestinians as well as the organization’s own nominal commitment to progressive social and political change. If the Task Force were really committed to social justice as its leadership claims, the organization would endorse the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which all of the queer Palestinian organizations have asked the LGBT community in the United States and throughout the world to support.
On Jan. 25, the Task Force issued a statement ‘condemning anti-Semitism’ (“National LGBTQ Task Force Condemns Anti-Semitism,” 1.25.16), though precisely what ‘anti-Semitism’ it was condemning was not at all clear from the statement, which documented nothing of the sort; instead, the Task Force seemed to be parroting Arthur Slepian’s false and almost absurdly desperate accusation of anti-Semitism to slander the progressive activists — many of them Jewish and many people of color — challenging the pinkwashing of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In its Jan. 25 statement, the Task Force seems to turn its back on people of color, youth, progressive activists and the pursuit of social justice altogether; it is difficult to read the statement in any other way, since there is not even an acknowledgement of the justice of the anti-apartheid cause or even of the right to freedom of speech and expression for those who oppose Israeli apartheid. The Task Force’s behavior in this whole episode has really shattered its pretension to being the lead organization of ‘the movement.’ An organization that would bow to money and power as the Task Force so obviously did in caving into the Zionist machine has abdicated any legitimate claim even to be progressive, let alone the lead organization of the LGBT movement.
The Task Force leadership should have realized that its craven capitulation would not appease Zionists and did not. Melanie Nathan, whose specialty seems to be vicious personal attacks on human rights activists, seemed to want to publicly ‘shame’ those who participated in the #cancelpinkwashing demonstration by naming as many participants as she could identify (Melanie Nathan, “Naming Participants in the Creating Change 2016 LGBTQ Jew Bash Fest,” 1.30.16).
Even A Wider Bridge rejected the overtures of the notorious Islamophobe Michael Lucas, who apparently proposed that the organization bring suit against the Task Force, according to a report in Ha’aretz (Allison Kaplan Sommer, “Gay Porn Star Comes Out Against anti-Israel LGBTQ Protest,” Ha’aretz, 2.2.16). In his op-ed in Out Magazine, Michael Lucas wrote,
The 200 thugs who showed up Friday at a Jewish reception were not interested in dialogue. They comprised an enraged gang filled with Jew-hatred, bent on intimidating and silencing LGBT Jews who have any connection to the state of Israel. And the sponsor of the creating Change Conference, the National LGBTQ Task Force, knew full well the potential for violence, and did absolutely nothing to safeguard the lives of more than 100 participants at the reception (Michael Lucas, “The Creating Change Protest Was Pure Anti-Semitism,” Out.com, 1.27.16).
Lucas himself was not at Creating Change and his account of the incident is fictional. Of course, this description is as far from reality, but it is hardly surprising coming from Lucas, a notorious Islamophobic bigot whose hysterical rants even the Zionist machine finds a tad embarrassing. A far more respected figure, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York (the largest LGBT synagogue in the world), unfortunately engaged in statements just as misleading if less hysterical in tone, writing,
What Kleinbaum refers to as a chant ‘calling for the eradication of Israel’ was the chant, ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.’ But as Wendy Elisheva Somerson noted,
references the Jewish historical trauma of forced displacement and genocide in Europe in order to position Israeli Jews as victims of Palestinians. In fact, it is Palestinians who were driven from their homes in 1948 during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in order to clear the way for the state of Israel [and] says nothing about Israel… The chant itself simply promotes a vision of a liberated Palestine. Pro-occupation advocates who equate Palestinian freedom with Israeli annihilation reveal their view of the relationship between Israel and Palestine as a zero-sum game in which only one group of people, Israeli Jews, deserves liberation. But can we call it liberation if Israeli freedom comes at the cost of Palestinian freedom? Or if a handful of LGBTQ people gain individual rights, while others languish in poverty, prisons and detention centers? (Wendy Elisheva Somerson, “Widening the Frame: The connections Between Queer and Palestinian Liberation,” Truthout.org, 2.2.16)
One other claim that Kleinbaum made in her Ha’aretz op-ed requires examination:
Anyone who knows me—or Googles me—will know that I fight Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. In 2012 I participated in a national LGBT leadership trip to Palestine, and connected strongly with activists there. I have always taken a stand for freedom of speech.
I actually participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine, and as the other 15 delegates and the two tour directors as well as the camera crew can attest, Kleinbaum actually abandoned the tour halfway through the week-long itinerary and did so without explanation or even notice to the tour directors and her delegate colleagues. When the deputy tour director asked Kleinbaum why she left the tour, she told him that the tour was not what she had thought it would be, mumbling something about having expected ‘dialogue’ between Israelis and Palestinians; but this explanation is no explanation at all, because Kleinbaum like all of the delegates had been given a clear explanation of the tour in advance. One can speculate why she abruptly left the tour halfway through it, but the common consensus among the other delegates was that Kleinbaum could not bring herself to face the reality of the occupation; and in fact, at every stop along the way, she aggressively questioned our local Palestinian tour guides (we had a different one in every city, town and village) as to the veracity of their description of the apartheid regime in each such municipality or locale, implying skepticism about the extent of the oppression and repression by the Israeli authorities that they were describing. And I am not aware of any real work that Kleinbaum has ever done to challenge the occupation; in fact, her public pronouncements have almost uniformly been harshly critical of those criticizing the occupation, especially those advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targeting apartheid Israel, calling into question her self-description in the Ha’aretz op-ed (“I fight Israel’s military occupation of Palestine”). It seems to me that someone less intent on criticizing the occupation than on criticizing those criticizing the occupation is not really ‘fighting’ the occupation.
In any case, despite its knowingly false and absurdly histrionic account of the events at Creating Change 2016 in Chicago, A Wider Bridge did not host a reception or any programming at Creating Change 2017 in Philadelphia, explaining that absence on its website:
Following the anti-semitic, anti-Israel incident at A Wider Bridge reception during Creating Change Conference last year, there’s a demand to know what we are planning to do with regard to participating in the upcoming Creating Change Conference, set for January 18 – 22 in Philadelphia. In brief, we are sending two of our staff leaders, Tye Gregory and Quentin Hill to participate in the conference, and to represent A Wider Bridge in the discussions, especially those that might focus on issues related to Israel and anti-Semitism. While we are not presenting a program or hosting a reception at the Conference itself, we are hosting a private Lunch and Learn event in Philadelphia on January 20, that will be an opportunity for both conference attendees and others in the Philadelphia area to learn about and discuss our work. On Wednesday, A Wider Bridge will be returning to the Creating Change Conference, this year in Philadelphia, to continue engaging LGBTQ leaders and activists with the shared advancement of LGBTQ rights in the United States and Israel. (“Creating Change 2017 and A Wider Bridge,” AWiderBridge.org, 1.16.17)
It is not clear from A Wider Bridge’s statement whether the organization submitted programming proposals to the Task Force and/or a request for space for a reception and was turned down or whether AWB decided not to attempt any such direct participation altogether; and unfortunately, the Task Force is not transparent in its decision-making and has not and likely will not respond to any requests for information about AWB and Creating Change 2017.
Unfortunately, for all its talk of ‘intersectional analysis’ of multiple oppressions, the Task Force ended up excoriating progressive activists for challenging Israeli apartheid and apologizing to Zionists for allowing their pinkwashing event to be disrupted, a betrayal of the organization’s ostensible commitment to the pursuit of social justice and the empowerment of those working for its attainment. Quite the contrary: the Task Force’s statements about the incident at Creating Change 2016 and its refusal to take a principled stand against Israeli apartheid and genocide represent a capitulation to the wealthy donor class to which the organization apparently now owes its primary loyalty rather than to the social justice activists who are its ostensible constituency, the opposite of what a progressive organization would do when confronted with a conflict between such activists and the propaganda machine of the illegal occupation of Palestine.
If the name of the Creating Change conference is to have any meaning, it must be as the name of a conference at which activists either create change or are empowered to do so by programming, networking and interactions there; if however the purpose of the conference is to fill the coffers of one of our largest LGBT organizations while at the same time excluding any discussion of such gross injustices as Israel’s illegal occupation much less real action to challenge it, then perhaps the conference should be renamed ‘Stifling Creating Change in Order to Satisfy Wealthy Zionist Donors.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” And so one would hope the arc of Palestinian history would. But the arc of the history of the Creating Change conference seems to be from that of a grassroots gathering of activists to an enormous and highly profitable mainstream LGBT conference to a conference that excludes discussion of one of the great issues of our time, and one with enormous implications not only for LGBT/queer Palestinians but for the LGBT community in the United States and worldwide.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA); she led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002 and participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine in 2012.